Every now and again I meet someone who, upon learning that I love to read and write fantasy, says something like, "I don't really read fiction. It seems like an indulgence when there are so many other books to read." By 'other,' they mean nonfiction: business books, or self-help, or history, or some other overtly productive genre.
The words are always offered ruefully, as if the person is vaguely sorry for them and wants me to know they mean no offense. But they invariably stir the embers of my storytelling passion into a flame, because I think people (adults, especially) very often miss the boat when it comes to fiction.
I can't suppress the suspicion that these folks might be imagining made-up stories to be something like daytime television soap operas: high on nonsense and low on value. But the truth is that most fictional novels are just as edifying and educational as your average nonfiction tome; they just wear it differently.
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Fiction Like a Brussels Sprout
They are like Brussels sprouts sautéed with olive oil, salt, and pepper: perhaps not as healthy as raw or boiled sprouts, but the point of eating them that way is to enjoy the experience, not to get healthy. And yet, you may get healthy along the way regardless. (By the way, if you've never eaten Brussels sprouts prepared this way, do yourself a favor and whip some up tonight.)
Here's an illustration of what I mean: If you're feeling down and are looking for hope, you might head to your local bookstore and check out the Psychology section. You might come away, like I did years ago, with an anxiety workbook that asks you to assess various symptoms and feelings, and then gives you exercises to work through them. This can be very beneficial, of course, and sometimes necessary, but in the short term it may not leave you feeling much better.
But let's say you go to the fantasy section of the bookstore and take home a copy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Say you binge read your way through Frodo and Sam's journey to destroy the One Ring, and you arrive at the end of book three, when Sam himself is beset by heavy despair. And you read this:
Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West, the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. (Tolkien, The Return of the King.)
What happens when you encounter something like this, experience something like this through the lens of another character in another place and another time, is multi-layered, complex, and beautiful. You might be comforted by the conviction that you are not the first person to have felt the weight of your own sadness and hopelessness to the extent that you now feel it.
You might suddenly understand something new about the heaviness you feel. You might discover a reason to hope that you didn't have before. You might find that the beauty of the narrative actually brings you joy. You might find your burden becoming slightly less difficult to carry.
Escaping Into the Magic of Fiction
All this in the space of a few sentences, simply because you are engrossed in something that is not your own life, your own sadness, your own pain, your own fear. You are giving yourself a safe escape out of yourself, into someone else.
And to me, this is the incalculable and alchemical magic of fiction: that it can teach us and inspire us and change us in ways that overt instruction sometimes cannot, because it gifts us with experiences we could never have on our own and lets us be the ones to make sense out of them. It isn't like arithmetic, where one plus one always equals two; it's like a painting or a symphony, which seems to arrive at a different solution for every individual, depending on their need.
I think this, too, is the reason that entertaining fiction can tackle harder issues in ways that promote healing and empathy. The point of a story like that is not to leave you with a greater understanding of this or that issue; the point is to satisfy you with a rollicking good tale, well told.
But truly good stories have within them myriad perspectives, ideas, and experiences that speak to the challenge of being human, and they invite you to encounter them safely, through the eyes of someone else. Fiction does not aim to teach, it aims to entertain. Which is perhaps what makes it such a superb teacher.
Plain vegetables have their place, but sometimes what you need is a good cooked meal that feeds your soul as well as your body. Sometimes what you need are human experiences, roasted with fragrant seasoning and served over a bed of romance and high adventure—from which you may come away fuller, healthier, and more satisfied than you would on a diet of raw facts.
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